Dancer and choreographer Leslie Parker, of Leslie Parker Dance Project, was influenced to create her newest piece based on the writings of poet and scholar Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (2016). Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ Spill is a collection of poetic musings and meditations on Hortense Spillers’s Black, White, and in Color (2003). Black feminist musings begat Black feminist affect begat Black feminist performance, which comes to fruition in Parker’s crystal, smoke n’ spirit(s), which premiered in Momentum: New Dance Works on July 18, 2019. In my interview with Leslie Parker, we discussed her piece crystal, smoke n’ spirit(s)…, her processes of developing the piece within the context of womanist and Black feminist identities, as well as why context matters when exploring works surrounding ethnic identities.
MCG (MICHELLE COWIN GIBBS)
You have said that you were inspired by Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (2016). What about her writings inspired your newest work? How did Gumbs’s work become part of the piece?
LP (LESLIE PARKER)
Well, it’s a bit of a story. I was working as a co-director for MayDay Tree of Life ceremony, that happens in Powderhorn Park in South Minneapolis every spring. It’s a big deal, very important celebration that welcomes spring. During the time that the Tree of Life ceremony was close to being performed, we were in rehearsals, maybe a couple of days before we were actually going to have the parade and then the ceremony. Someone came to me and handed me a book, and that book was Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. And the person asked, “Would you like a book?” Sure! Normally I don’t do that, but because I could tell this person had been around me during the MayDay process and was direct in the way that they approached me, I was like, “Of course, I’ll take it.” When I opened the book, it was autographed by Alexis. On the first page it said, “Love. You have to use it every day.”
Now, the theme for the Tree of Life ceremony was based on love. The ceremony that I choreographed and co-directed was based off of the inspiration of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. So, John Coltrane had been a major conversation during the preparation for May Day and the Tree of Life Ceremony. A Love Supreme was played throughout our entire process, and so I felt like things were connecting. Then the more that I looked at Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s name, I realized and said to myself, “Oh my gosh!” I remembered Alexis in a workshop led by Ebony Noelle Golden for Sharon Bridgforth’s Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady that premiered at Pillsbury House Theater. I didn’t know Alexis at the time. I do know that when we were workshopping [Bridgforth’s] script and moving with Ebony Noelle Golden, who was also directing, I felt very, very connected to the energy, and I was honored to have been in that space workshopping the script among such beautiful people. So the book, and then after that experience I was like, “I really would love to be in conversation with Alexis Pauline Gumbs on this book, her writing, and her thought process, in collaboration with my thought process about various understandings of Black feminisms.”
In crystal, smoke n’ spirit(s)… there are inferences of womanism, Black motherhood, and collective healing across transatlantic African diasporic cultures and communities. Can you talk about the process of developing this piece within the context of your larger creative goals for the work?
In this piece, I think about diviners, particularly women. Diviners come in all shapes, forms, sizes, colors, ethnicities, genders. However, I’m thinking more specifically about Black women diviners—Black women prayer warriors specifically, because they have been so much a part of my life and my history, and I just really needed to take some time out in this work to honor their leadership in our communities. They have been named for some of us, and some unnamed, and I acknowledge that they have created these different “spells” in the kitchen to heal and to nourish our communities. I honor that they cooked, and they pressed hair, like my mother—the way she pressed my hair in the kitchen. The way that we call some of the nappiest part of our hair “the kitchen,” how we have found love in some of the tightest, more heated, and in the colder spaces in our lives. We have been able to move on and move forward through the examples of these named and unnamed divining women who worked for the future of generations. When thinking historically of our elders, Black mothers, the stereotypical mammy figures, the women who worked in kitchens, cleaning houses and raising children, whether it be for white families or for families not their own—all the while they would also care for their own families. Through their huge ability to care for and to love, we have experience hope for the future. They endured, seeing something bigger in something greater through love. This is what I know through my lineage, and that stems back even farther from the trans-Atlantic cultures and communities of the African diaspora. How are these women held in a contemporary moment? I’ve heard a lot of stories in my childhood that mimicked and mocked Blackness, that have created a cliché form that now we as Black people have to be leery of when making work—therefore, having to ask questions of what “cliché” is based upon images and stereotypes that black people didn’t create.
I am inspired by the perseverance of the divining women, named and unnamed, who have steered culture and context beyond survival. Because of them and so many, we can imagine a future of our communities that is nourishing and that feeds all.
In previous conversations, you’ve used the word “domesticity” when referring to the larger themes of this piece. What is the context for this term in crystal, smoke, n’ spirit(s)…?
I am referring to the inspiration that came from many scenes in Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity. I think of recipes that have been passed down in my family from generation to generation through the women. Recipes are not only written, they also come with oral stories, and each individual who holds this knowledge may or may not experiment with it to try for something different, maybe even new. These recipes can include ingredients that range from healing a common cold to soul food. The seasonings and ingredients used in cooking or cleaning the house on Sundays, or sewing fabric into clothes, all can determine so much about how a person lives and/or has lived—much like dance. Alexis’s book inspired me to think of domesticity in various ways besides the usual.
Let’s chat about the role of audience in crystal, smoke n’ spirit(s)… In the piece, the scenic environment (i.e., scenic, lighting, and costume design) and props on stage seem to “affect” as much as the movement on stage. What is the role of audience in relationship to the scenic elements?
Everything. Everything is connected. The audience witnesses in a shared experience. Through witnessing, a testifying can happen. I think that by being conscious of one’s presence in the space and in the environment is a testimony to a very assertive presence. The audience has agency by having a responsibility and the potential to make an individual and/or collective statement that says, “I am open to an experience”—an opportunity to share in an energy that might bring up questions, or that may not. However, I hold the energy that people bring into the space just as much as they’re holding my energy, and our energy as a cast and as artists.
Alexis and I have similar processes in this work, which supported our collaboration really well. In Spill, there aren’t necessarily any named characters with linear narratives. There’s nothing linear about my reading Spill, which I’m extremely attracted to in this work, because making dance is not a linear process for me. And what I mean by that is: it doesn’t (figuratively) mean that this thing had to happen in order for this thing to happen, to make that thing have happened, in an orderly kind of manner.
There is a way that my work unfolds in real time, meaning that it has a way of developing and existing by cause and effect. However, I don’t think of cause and effect as in linear time. There’s a lot of space in the work for interpretation, while at the same time there’s space for recognizing reference points of the African diaspora, as well as the way that I see it and the way that I live it and that I experience it, and so therefore in the way that I am sharing it.
The scenic elements are inspired by different scenes in Alexis’s book. The world that we’ve created is like a world of many worlds, where different scenes unfold, transform, and shift.
Through this work, we are now opening to a broader awareness that’s not just the cast only, but also to the audience and then beyond. As each person comes into the room and brings their own history, they’re sharing in a contemporary moment. So, it’s a collective honoring of reflection. But in that reflection, we ask ourselves questions like: What is the probability of change? What is the possibility of change? Do we wanna see change? What kind of change do we wanna see? For that change to happen, how do we reflect on ourselves? And in that reflection, how are we being held, and how have we been held to see to it that [change] happens in a way that brings about more compassion in our communities and more self-love?
On your website, you state that “[dance] is an opportunity to ‘unpack’ influences of culture, ritual, and daily life practices [as] a process of unraveling embodied experience through rigorous physical exploration.” What are the questions that appear most often in your work? How does dance as a rigorous physical exploration help you grapple with those questions?
Well, currently, questions around identity and spirituality and cultural work, whether it be social justice or social awareness, social consciousness. Questions around collectivity and how we reconcile, or how we might disrupt in order to see something newer emerge, in order to ask: What is really new? Is it emerging or reemerging? How are we embracing difference? Are we embracing difference? And how can I utilize spaces to manifest more love that are inquisitive and wild and creative, so that particularly Black people can survive and go beyond survival, and thrive and continue to thrive? The work of my ancestors, I don’t believe, happened in vain. I refuse to live my life as though the work of my ancestors is in vain. I recognize that everything I am is because they were—which is to say, they are. And so when I’m not looking at time in a linear fashion, then I know that I am because they were. And even as an experimental person at this stage of the game, for me, the argument of the experimentation that I am most interested in is innovation. But not innovative in a way that does not necessarily preserve tradition—because I’m not preserving it. But I do acknowledge it, and I do see it. I think it’s an excellent opportunity for me to think about my intuition more deeply, to feel the intuitive nature, and to think about how my intuition is connected to something larger than myself, which then connects to time that is nonlinear. I think by doing that, I am connecting not only to my family and my community, but I’m also connecting to families and communities that are not directly connected to me, but maybe indirectly connected to me, because of the human experience. How is it that I can become more humane, more compassionate? How can I expand my capacity for compassion and for more love through the work that I do, and how I share with others? How can I expand the work that I do in a way that allows for us to think a lot more broadly beyond commodity and production (knowing that that is also a part of what it is that I’m doing)?
This is why I think of performing identity as something not like a commodity; it’s something more like lived experiences in real time. That’s why improvisation is also a very important and significant part of the way that I create work, the way that I experience my work—and not only my work, my life. I come from a history of people—mass incarceration, and the work of growing up in a poor community in a poor family—but there’s also so much celebration, and so much love, and so much perseverance, and so much strength, and so much beauty that inspires me. It calls me to remember what I embody, or to archive, even though I may not have all the pictures of my ancestors. I may not have all that is tangible, but I do know through my embodied experience that they live and that they are. Then I can ask questions of myself, in order to bring about a conversation that goes beyond myself.
I think the rigorous physical exploration of it is because what I do have at the end of the day is my body. As a dancer, that’s what I have, is my body. When I’m working with dance artists, we’re working with bodies, and when I’m working with musicians, even though they have instruments, they play those instruments through using parts of their body, with their intellect and their minds—as well as their emotional capacity, which I think ties into the nature of essence. When I think of essence, I think of spirit.
It’s an ongoing process. I think of process and production as something that exist simultaneously, that are the same. I’m not in process for production’s sake, and I’m not in production for the sake of process only. The production and process coexist. We live in a world where capitalism plays a major role in the way that people are surviving, so I am not trying to dismantle rituals that exist already. What I’m doing is asking questions of the of the daily rituals that we have. I’m grappling with how these rituals are affecting real change for the survival of humanity.
Why is context so important when it comes to exploring creative works that are born out of ethnic communities? I’m specifically referring to the review of Momentum: New Dance Works that came out in the Pioneer Press. Although I think freedom of speech and the ability to constructively view creative work is necessary, it is also important to think contextually about work that comes out of ethnic cultures and communities, work that may not be understood by all. What are your thoughts about this?
Context is needed to have a genuine exchange in dialogue on difference. To have dialogue is an opportunity to expand understanding beyond the bubbles any person may live inside and to gain a broader perspective. Embracing difference, manifesting healing that is holistic, employing reconciliation practices, and making spaces that are open for and to all people as a means to ask questions are necessary tools for real change.
What is next for crystal, smoke, n’ spirit(s)…? Is this piece an ongoing exploration for you? What questions has this piece stirred in you?
Yes! Absolutely, this work is an ongoing exploration for me and will continue in collaboration with Dr. Taiyon Coleman, Assistant Professor of English at St. Catherine University, to present a synthesis of teaching and learning with a more embodied study of Black identity in my work as a dancer, choreographer, and scholar. We will present to her class in fall 2019 at St. Catherine University.